Spec Ops: the Line and Player Identity

[This turned in to quite the rambling mess of a post, but it was good to write again, so I want to put it up anyways.]

When we play a video game, who are we supposed to be within the game? Are we merely supposed to relate to the character we’re controlling, or should we actually think of ourselves as being that character? And to what extent should we feel morally culpable for the acts that our avatar in the commits?

Bioware RPGs in particular spend a great deal of time and energy encouraging players to invest themselves in their avatar. And this pays off. Just look at the number of times, when I’ve written about these games, that I’ve slipped into first person when describing the actions of my in-game avatar. I feel responsible for the decisions of my Hawke and Sheppard in a way that I don’t feel responsible for, say, the senseless acts of violence committed by Niko Bellic, the player avatar of Grand Theft Auto 4, who, again and again throughout the game, insists he wants to get out and start a new life, but can’t help from agreeing to going on one more shooting spree. It’s the reason behind all the silent protagonists in video games. The hope is that the less direct personality the designers instill in the avatar, the easier time the player will have projecting themselves into the avatar.

This leads us to Spec Ops: The Line. It’s (yet another) take on Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. What makes it interesting is that it tries to say something about violence in military shooter games, and about the psychological effects of war and violence. It’s not entirely successful, but it makes a worthy attempt. See here for some thoughts on what the game puts the player through.

The game clearly wants us to think of ourselves as being our avatar, Captain Walker, in the game. It wants us to feel morally culpable for his misdeeds. It even goes so far as to directly address us in loading screens as if we had committed the acts in the game.

The problem is that when we as players think of ourselves as actually being our character, any “gaminess” throws us out of the experience. Any time the character reacts in a way contrary to our expectations, any time the game forces us one way when we would want to go another–it drives a wedge between us and the character we’re controlling, and the more the game tries to force the player to identify as the character, the more likely it is that we as players will revolt, will say “that wasn’t me; I wouldn’t have done that.”

And that happens in spades here. The game purports to be set in the real world, with Walker and his squad as US soldiers. But there’s no opportunity for us to make them act as such. Walker insists on going off-mission in a reckless pursuit of his own goals, and refuses to try to contact his commanders. What’s more, the game wants us to believe that Walker and his squad can shoot their way singlehandedly through an entire army battalion. What’s more, there’s some odd, gamey mechanics that stick out in a distracting way. In particular, when you melee-execute an enemy, you get ammo for all your guns, whereas if you kill the enemy normally, you only get ammo for the gun the enemy was carrying. In a seriously ammo-limited game, this is a big incentive, unrealistic incentive to use the executions.

Word of God offer an alternate interpretation. Walker is dead for essentially all the game, and what we’re playing is Walker’s journey through a purgatory that he is inflicting on himself due to guilt over bad deeds he committed in Afghanistan as a soldier while he was alive. We, as players, are then not controlling Walker himself, but instead playing as, perhaps, his conscience or his last shred of consciousness. This resolves the issues with the gaminess and the forced choices in a really neat way. We can’t take Walker off this path because he’s already put himself on it and we don’t have the power to save him from what he’s already done. At best we can help him come to terms with it.

This interpretation undermines a lot of the work the game the game does in trying to make us feel culpable for Walker’s actions, but, ultimately, makes the game make more sense.

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